Saturday, November 15, 2014

Saturday Morning Musings - rules and injustice

Today's Saturday Morning Musings reflects on threads in my own thinking.

There has been a fair bit of coverage in the Australian media on the internal troubles at WA's Murdoch University. This a recent latest example. The internal staff divisions look a complete mess. Meantime, a major cheating row  has broken out, one that seems especially focused on international students.

Neither imbroglio is new. Problems in university administration have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years, while the latest cheating row is but one in a number of such scandals. Neither will be the last. There is simply too much money and power - personal, institutional and professional - at stake now.

My personal biases here are well known. I grew up in an academic family in a university town. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that I have a particular feeling for what some might now call that previous ancien regime, overthrown by the need - real as well as perceived -  for change. Still, Australia's universities are an interesting case study for they sit at the intersection of multiple overlapping circles, each with its own features.that interact and sometimes conflict.

Responses to fear of failure

In the case of the MyMaster web site cheating scandal, the current reaction is to call in the regulator, in this case the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). Technically, I'm not sure that TESQA as a quality assurance body should be called a regulator, but that appears to be the way that it is being treated in this case.

All this is very current. In wishing to withdraw from direct control or indeed direct action, in wishing to create actual or proxy market forces, Governments then face a simple question: what do we do if something goes wrong? How do we stop that? Further, we actually still want to be in control, to ensure that our policy objectives are being met. How do we ensure this? Imposition of standards and regulation has become the answer.

There is something deeply inconsistent in all this. Business failure is central to competitive models. The argument, one that I accept, is that in the cut and thrust of competition, some businesses must fail.How else do you achieve improvement? People make decisions, some are wrong, some good. Business failure is the culmination of wrong decisions, business growth the culmination of successful decisions. Government can't accept that when it comes to its own activities..

Consider, for example, the desire to out source a range of Government activities to private and not for profit organisations. I have no problem with this. Yet logic says that some of those entities must fail as organisations compete against each other and strive to develop new approaches. Government can't accept this because of the political repercussions. They want the gains from competition, but without the price. It just won't work.

Rules, corruption and fear of breach

In NSW, the Police Integrity Commission has launched a probe into allegations of improper conduct by two of the State's top police, Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and one of his deputies Nick Kaldas,  In Western Australia, the troubles at Murdoch University are directly connected with allegations being investigated by Western Australia's Corruption and Crime Commission. At the University of New England, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) brought down adverse findings against former Chancellor John Cassidy over a hotel deal, but did not recommend action because they involved disciplinary matters rather than a criminal offence.

I have listed just a few. The point I want to make is that the proliferation of rules and enforcing bodies has created a very particular (and peculiar) climate that is being used by people for their own ends.We constantly create new classes of corrupt conduct, new enforcement bodies and ten wonder at the results.

The purely human cost

Once you have rules and rigid computer based enforcement of those rules, you have a problem.I have written about this in the context of rivers licenses and birth certificates. Recently, I cam across a very sad example.

The person in question needed an identity and police check to get a government job. Out of the workforce for some time, she really needed the job she had been given, But there was a problem.

Her parents were born in Eastern Europe. They escaped across the Green line. She was born in a refugee camp in Italy. There are no records of her birth.

She came to Australia with her parents. Here she studied, gained qualifications, married, had children, even had a passport at one point. Now she needs an identity check.But, it now appears, she no longer exists. The rules state that she must show certain documentation. There is apparently no official or even ministerial discretion. Rules are rules. Thy must be enforced.

She clearly exists. She has clearly been in Australia since a child.And yet, the key documents that she requires to meet to identity check have either been lost or never existed. She is stuck in limbo.

Obviously, I am angry at this result. Yet what can I do? I understand that legal advice is being obtained on court actions that might be taken. But again, this must be bound by rules.Rules are rules.

I may seem to have come a fair distance from my starting point.I don't think so. While I am a supporter of pro-active Government, I do wish that Government would get out of our lives. Most, I wish that they would work out what they should actually do, ensuring clarity of principle before action,



Evan said...

With a bureaucratic approach those things labelled "Misc" tend to increase.

The traditional answer has been personal discretion by a recognised person (e.g. government minister).

Which leads to a whole new set of problems. (Yes, I am thinking of Scott Morrison.)

2 tanners said...

Jim (and Evan) I agree and probably as cranky as you are, not always for the same reasons. There needs to be discretion and there needs to be oversight. I think the problem arises when punishment accompanies mistakes, rather than correction. This encourages hiding, cover ups and worse.

It is NOT good enough regarding a number of Australian educational institutions, particularly those who are arguing that their standards and their fees should be unregulated. In many industries I would argue that this is desirable, but where you are really fooling around with a generation's chances in the world, I require a little more than market theory.

All said, I am not afan of over-regulation and Ministerial intervention but I am not sure I see the optimum response to these fairly intractable issues

Evan said...

I agree 2 tanners

Jim Belshaw said...

The problem is further compounded, 2T,when there are financial rewards for cover-ups. Part of the answer lies in acceptance that there will be some bad results.